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The Conservation and Open Space Element: It's over!

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It took the better part of the year, but on Dec. 17, SLO County planning commissioners finally closed the books on the Conservation and Open Space Element (COSE) of the county’s general plan.

Through the process, commissioners and county staffers essentially dissected, rewrote, and combined nine land-use policy areas into one element. Some of the policies haven’t been touched for 34 years, according to the county website. Of those elements, two sparked divisive arguments: energy and biological resources, specifically a sewage byproduct known as sludge. Despite some arguments, all the sections were voted on unanimously.

The energy element became the window into what will likely be a fight over large solar projects proposed by SunPower and First Solar for construction in the Carrizo plains. Arguments centered on how heavily the county should scrutinize impacts of big solar projects and whether the county should push for more rooftop solar.

Even staffers argued heavily that much of the original policy language was too restrictive for big solar. After some arguing, the commissioners settled on middle-ground language that holds both types of solar to trying to avoid environmental impacts—or at least mitigating them.

That type of language worried SunPower, which had delivered a letter to the commission earlier that day.

“The addition of more flexible language is especially important because many renewable energy projects are visible and in many instances
all visual or other impacts cannot be fully mitigated,” the letter comments on the proposed polices.

The policy stayed close to the original language, though some concessions were made to scale back restrictions on developers.

Policies on sewage sludge also raised eyebrows; some people worried the language would be overly restrictive for the sewage industry. Local and state representatives—including Paso Robles Wastewater Manager Matt Thompson—complained that a policy to ban sludge application on open space land in the county was unnecessarily cautious and actually costly because sewage providers have to ship the sludge out of the county.

But the commissioners steadfastly maintained that since so much is unknown about sludge—which often contains pharmaceuticals, pathogens, and other environmental hazards—and the county already has a moratorium on its use, there was no reason to open the door for more application to county lands.

The element still has to go to SLO County supervisors for final review and approval.

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